Martti J. Kari,
Ph.D., Colonel (ret), University Teacher,
Ukraine remains on the frontline of the confrontation between Russia and the West. Russia is waging a war of attrition in eastern Ukraine and showing no signs to retreat. The war has cost over 14,000 lives and displaced millions of Ukrainians. The Minsk peace agreement from 2015, which aimed to establish a ceasefire and a path to peace, was a victory for Russia. Russia’s goal is to persuade Ukraine to accept the autonomy of the self-declared “Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics” (the so-called DPR and LPR, respectively), gain leverage to influence Ukraine’s domestic policy, and stop Ukraine’s movement towards NATO and EU memberships.
Yet since 2015, the implementation of the Minsk agreement has been in a stalemate. Officially, Russia recognizes the separatist regions as Ukrainian territory. In practice, the Kremlin is trying to prevent their reintegration to Ukraine. According to the Minsk agreement, Ukraine will gain control of its eastern borders and the separatist regions will have a special status and self-government. According to Ukraine, the elections of these self-government bodies should be held after Ukraine has gained control of the borders. Russia’s interpretation of the Minsk agreements and the Steinmeier formula, introduced in October 2015 to implement the Minsk agreement, is that the elections will be first and after that Ukraine will regain control of the borders. The Steinmeier formula has been the backbone of the Normandy format negotiations. The participants of the Normandy contact group are Russia, Ukraine, France and Germany. To facilitate the diplomatic resolution to the war, Ukraine, Russia and the OSCE established the Trilateral Contact Group (TCG) in May 2104.
Russia has tried to shift the peace process away from the Normandy group to the TCG and reposition itself as the mediator of the conflict. Russia is attempting to give the representatives of the DPR and the LPR equal status to the Ukrainian negotiators in TCG’s working groups and to take the role of a facilitator. Russia is promoting the narrative that the war is a civil war, and attempting to demonstrate that it is not the aggressor. The goal is to get the West to lift the sanctions and to wage information warfare in Ukraine so as to divide the Ukrainian nation into Russians and Ukrainians.
Since spring 2019, Russia has distributed more than 200,000 Russian passports to Ukrainians who reside in or have emigrated from the separatist regions. The Kremlin wants to transform the separatist regions into an area Russia can use for its armed forces, with the excuse that they are protecting the interests of Russia and its citizens, as is stated in the Russian Military Doctrine in 2014. It seems that Russia will not end to support to armed formations of the DPR and LPR or to withdraw Russian forces from the occupied territories.
The Kremlin’s tactics in the country’s vicinity have been to establish bridgeheads for political or military operations, and then to freeze the situation and wait for time to work in Russia’s favor. These tactics have been proven to work in Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria.
At the end of 2020, President Putin stated that Russia would continue to increase its support in the Donbas region. It seems that the Kremlin wants to keep Ukraine in the Russian sphere of influence and to distance Ukraine from NATO and the EU using the tools of hybrid warfare. One possible scenario might be the Abkhazia scenario. It means that the DPR and LPR might declare themselves as autonomous regions. As the end of 2020 we saw the first signs of the next step towards the autonomy of the Donbass region and of a new phase in the conflict. The head of the DPR announced the development of a doctrine called “Russian Donbass,” the aim of which is the integration of Donbass into Russian cultural and economic space.
Russia has benefited from the fact that the EU has become increasingly tired of the Donbass crises. The EU has aimed to settle the conflict, prevent its escalation, and avoid a large-scale conflict with Russia. The US under the Trump administration has not paid much attention to the confrontation with Russia in Donbass. Now the situation has changed. Ukraine is expecting greater support from the Biden administration in countering Russian aggression. Ukrainians think that Biden does not support Putin like Trump did, and will not “trade” Ukraine. The Biden administration considers Russia’s aggression against Ukraine as a violation of the European security order. Success in Ukraine would make the country an example of how countermeasures can succeed against Russia’s hybrid interventions. The Kremlin is probably worried that Biden will increase both military and political support for Kiev. The Bosnian war, for example, continued for three years despite the sanctions on Serbia and the EU peace efforts until the United States took the lead in 1995 to end the war. Time will tell if history will repeat itself in Ukraine.
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